The challenge for Obama’s background checks proposal

Opinion

President Barack Obama (C) walks through the Senate Reception Room as he arrives at the U.S. Captiol for his third day of meetings with members of Congress March 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. With tax reform, spending cuts, gun control and immigration on the agenda, Obama will meet with Senate Republicans and House Democrats today. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Barack Obama (C) walks through the Senate Reception Room as he arrives at the U.S. Captiol for his third day of meetings with members of Congress March 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. With tax reform, spending cuts, gun control and immigration on the agenda, Obama will meet with Senate Republicans and House Democrats today. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his remarks on gun control on last week, President Obama emphatically highlighted the number 90, the percentage of Americans in polls who say they support background checks for all gun purchases.

But in reality, equally important numbers may be 24,  20, 17, 14 and 4. The five Senate Democrats (and most of the Republicans) not yet backing background checks live in states where Obama is highly unpopular. In Arkansas, Mitt Romney defeated Obama last November by 22 points.

The president lost by 20 in North Dakota, 17 in Louisiana, 14 in Alaska and Montana. Four of these senators are running for reelection next year, and they fear a gun control bill cast as part of a Obama-Bloomberg agenda holds no political benefit for them. These senators won in red states in part because of their ability to cast themselves as separate from the national Democratic Party.

Red-state Democrats face a choice

The red-state Democrats so far supporting the gun control push are either 1.) not running for re-election or 2.) live in states, such as North Carolina, where Obama lost only narrowly. And so far, the tiny number of Republicans backing gun control are in blue states, like Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk.

Support for new gun measures is also strongly divided by race and geography in ways that are unhelpful for the White House. According to a recent Washington Post poll, 79 percent of blacks and 65 percent of people who live in urban areas support stricter gun laws. In contrast, 49 percent of whites and 63 percent of people who live in rural areas oppose additional gun regulations.

In short, gun control mirrors much of American politics: an urban, diverse bloc in support of additional gun laws; a smaller, more rural, less diverse bloc in opposition. And while Obama can get the most votes in a national election, a background check proposal passing through Congress will need the support of senators in places like Montana, Alaska and North Dakota, all of which have black populations of less than 4 percent.

Desperate for conservatives

This contrast is why White House officials and Democrats are desperate to get a conservative Republican from a red state, like Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, to back new gun legislation. If Coburn were on board, gun control would no longer be a red states versus blue states issue. Liberal Democrats and the president could point to Coburn when they were trying to persuade Democrats in red states to vote for background checks.

Looking at this dynamic through another issue, it’s no accident several conservative Democrats only declared their support for gay marriage after prominent Republicans, such as Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and ex-Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, said they backed same-sex unions.

None of these numbers mean a background checks bill won’t pass. Polls show that a majority of people, even in conservative states, back the idea. But the wariness of these red-state Democrats is not surprising: in many of their states, gun rights activists are highly engaged in politics and ready to oppose any candidate who the National Rifle Association suggests is anti-gun, while the number of passionate gun control supporters is small.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr